Let’s bitch it out…
As always, a few points to establish before we get to the list:
- Films had to debut in wide or limited release or on VOD in 2017 to be eligible for consideration
- I don’t see every film, so there’s a list of potential contenders at the bottom of the post.
- Limiting the list to 10 is arbitrary, so there are also Honourable Mentions at the bottom.
Alright, enough preamble – let’s get the party started!
10. okja (Bong Joon-ho, 2017)
It’s hard to capture the strange magic of Joon-ho’s made-for-Netflix feature. The visionary director of some of my most beloved films of the last two decades (The Host, Mother and Snowpiercer, my #1 film of 2014) has delivered one of the strangest films of the year, which only makes me more inclined to recommend it.
okja is an adorable family-friendly film about a girl and her giant pet pig. It is also an action/heist film when said pig is abducted by animal activists. It is also a satire of the hypocrisy of said animal activists and their clickbait attempt to draw attention to animal cruelty. It is also an exposé on said animal cruelty, genetically modified food and cultural consumerism (jerky!).
Oh yes, okja also stars Tilda Swinton as mildly-deranged OCD twins and Jake Gyllenhaal, doing a bizarrely infantile Steve Irwin-ish impression while hamming it up so brazenly that he might as well take a bite out of the set.
So yeah, okja is a lot of different things. And yet, despite the tonal imbalance and the complete genre mismash, it’s an incredibly entertaining, astute film. The joy in Seo-hyun Ahn’s performance as Mija, the girl desperate to recover her best friend, is incredibly endearing. The chase through a South Korea underground mall is one of the year’s best action sequences. And the entirety of the finale at the pig processing plant is so gruelling and distressing that I literally went vegetarian for a few weeks.
This is the powerful of okja, 2017’s truly bizarre, entertaining little oddity.
9. The Square (Ruben Östlund, 2017)
First, a confession: working at an art school may have made me appreciate The Square more than an average cinemagoer. Some of the ridiculous components of the film are so astutely spot on that I couldn’t help but laugh, even when I was the only one laughing in the theatre.
There are peaks and valleys in Östlund’s follow-up to his massively successful Force Majeure. This new film has a distinctly European sensibility in its pacing and mix of comedy and drama. A touch too long, the film tackles the mounting of a controversial new art exhibit from the perspective of the museum’s curator Christian (the amazingly named Claes Bang).
Your mileage on some of the film’s subplots, including hook-up etiquette featuring an unhinged Elisabeth Moss and a monkey cameo, insane promotional clickbait and an extended rift on insane performance art, may vary, but The Square is never not interesting, provocative and exceedingly well-directed. It’s very unique and memorable.
8. Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017) / Spiderman: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017) – Tie
Considering the kind of year it’s been for women, and more specifically women in the entertainment industry, it’s nearly impossible not to champion Wonder Woman. How can you not recognize Patty Jenkins’ incredible achievement in bringing one of pop culture’s most definitive female empowerment figures to the big screen? How can you not celebrate the respect and craftsmanship employed in adapting the character and the material? How can you not praise Gal Gadot’s fearless, winsome performance as the legendary Amazon? Or marvel as the easy-going chemistry that Gadot shares with leading man Chris Pine, whose Steve Trevor is simultaneously a love interest, supporting character and leading man all at once?
Basically Wonder Woman is a great superhero film and a testament to all of the idiot naysayers who complain that women can’t occupy the role. Considering DC’s abysmal track record, they should thank the gods that they have Wonder Woman.
Spiderman: Homecoming is one of those films that you dread when you first see the trailer. “Another Spiderman?! Ugh.” Considering that this is the most rebooted franchise in the last two decades, it’s a testament to the creative team that any aspect of Homecoming feels fresh. In reality, the whole film is great: Tom Holland is perfectly cast as Peter, the action and humour are well balanced, and the rejection of an origin story in favour of a well-told high school tale is exactly what audiences needed. While I would have preferred a meatier role for Michael Keaton, the small time criminal angle feels appropriately low-key for the film and the moment his identity is revealed is arguably one of the year’s best twists.
Spiderman: Homecoming immediately ties for best Spidey film (alongside Spiderman 2) thanks to its heady mix of brains, brawn and heart. A truly excellent superhero film.
7. mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017)
Certainly the most controversial film of 2017 (at least before Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened), this passion project by director Darren Aronofsky was destined to fail at the box office the moment it went into wide release with horror film marketing.
Call it a religious allegory, an environmental decree or whatever you will – mother! was always going to be a challenge for mainstream audiences. To me, that’s why the film is such a success. This is risky, personal, confrontation filmmaking – the kind that we don’t see anymore. It’s not to everyone’s taste and I personally don’t know that I ever want to see the film again, but it’s an undeniable sensory experience. By the end of two rounds of home invasions by rude and inconsiderate strangers, we feel as exhausted, overwhelmed and put out as Jennifer Lawrence’s character. It’s a feat of endurance, masterfully constructed by a director who cares little for appealing to the masses. In the day and age of blockbuster doldrums, mother! is a surprising breath of fresh air.
6. God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, 2017)
God’s Own Country came out of nowhere and totally bowled me over. I had heard good things from friends online (check out Seventh Row‘s exhaustive coverage if you want a deep dive). This is quietly deceptive film, simplistic in narrative, but emotionally exhausting.
The film is about Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a wounded young man who is trapped caring for the family sheep farm after his father Martin (Ian Hart) has a health scare. Johnny is obviously unhappy with his situation and his father nitpicks his every move, but there’s something else tearing him apart…
Not unlike other queer cinema, God’s Own Country mines the process of coming out and being true to yourself for narrative gold. The key distinction is that there’s a verisimilitude to the proceedings: the natural beauty of the northern UK countryside is complemented by naturalistic performances by O’Connor and Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe, the Romanian migrant worker who eventually becomes Johnny’s lover. The entire film is simply the pair of them finding a way to connect – both emotionally and physically – and how challenging it is to overcome your own self-hatred and personal issues.
It’s a gorgeous, beautiful little film that packs a surprising emotional wallop. Comparisons to Brokeback Mountain were always inevitable considering the subject matter and profession of the characters, but suggesting it is simply a UK knock-off undermines Lee’s substantial achievement and O’Connor’s searing performance. Seek this one out if you need reaffirmation about the vitality of love.
5. Logan (James Mangold, 2017)
One of the reasons that Logan is so effective is because we have history with this character. It’s hard to understate how vital our connection to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X is to the film’s success. These characters have gone on a long, storied journey and when we catch up with their grizzled, senile, ailing bodies in this film, it feels like the end. It doesn’t hurt that both actors sell the shit out of this last ride, or that Mangold and screenwriter Scott Frank treat this film like a serious drama first and a superhero film second. That’s not a dismissal of the latter’s appeal; simply that in Logan the action is always secondary and when it does come to the fore, it is far more understated. The world is not in peril in this film: the battle is deeply personal and small scale, which reinforces that this is a personal journey for both Wolvie, X and their new charge, X23 (played wonderfully by Dafne Keen).
In Logan the violence, when it is inflicted, feels real. And when people die (and that hard R is earned, baby), it is painful and harsh. People in my theatre cried, which is a testament to the film’s strengths. Not every superhero film can claim that.
4. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
I’m not suggesting that Blade Runner 2049 makes the cut exclusively on Roger Deakins’ cinematography, but the fact that this is the most visually stunning film of the year didn’t hurt.
Full confession: this is a mildly problematic film, particularly when it comes to depictions of gender and agency. Do I wish that the plot were focused on more than white male problems, or that women aren’t routinely fridged to drive the narrative and cause protagonist K (Ryan Gosling) suffering? Absolutely.
This doesn’t diminish the fact that as a cultural text, Blade Runner 2049 carries on an annual trend of cerebral (philosophical even) big budget action blockbusters (see also: 2016’s Arrival, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, and 2014’s Snowpiercer). This is a film that wrestles with definitions of humanity, creation and destiny, magnified by stunning practical effects and paying homage – while also expanding on – one of the most significant science-fiction texts in cinema history. I mean, the visual representation of the threesome in this film alone merits a place in my top 10!
Ask yourself honestly: would you rather see a challenging, not-entirely-successful, thought-provoking film over a nonsensical action film featuring a poorly CGI’d sea-doo battle? I know my answer is “any day of the week.”
3. The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)
It was clear as soon as The Florida Project began making the rounds at different festivals earlier this fall that director Sean Baker (Tangerine) had outdone himself with his sophomore feature. Baker’s film focuses on the lives of a low-income mother/daughter family living just off the Disneyworld strip in Florida, which could be the most depressing film of the year, but somehow manages to be both somber and uplifting at the same time. Working from his own screenplay, Baker fluidly alternates between a joyful celebration of carefree youth and the stark reality of life on the edge of poverty. The film wouldn’t work without two superb actresses at the helm: Brooklyn Prince injects so much passion and exuberance into her performance as Moonee, it’s no wonder Prince has become an awards season breakout. It would be a shame if audiences overlook the talented Bria Vinaite, however; Halley is The Florida Project‘s trickiest character, but Vinaite manages to make her a sympathetic character despite Halley’s flaws and poor decisions.
As I wrote in my brief TIFF review back in September: “The characters in Baker’s films feel like real human beings and he capitalizes on this by showcasing the highs and lows of lives lived outside of the conventional scope of Hollywood films.” I predicted then that it would show up on End of Year lists…and I was right. This is powerful and important filmmaking; The Florida Project is worth seeking out.
2. The Shape Of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)
del Toro’s films have a certain kind of magic to them and this one more than most. A love letter to Classical Hollywood and monster films (think Creature From The Black Lagoon, only the monster gets the girl), The Shape of Water is a gem in every sense of the word.
Set in the 60s at an American military laboratory, the film is populated by outsiders who don’t quite fit in. As mute heroine Elisa, Sally Hawkins is a marvel: she has no difficulty communicating the depths of Elisa’s loneliness, nor her whimsical love for adventure, romance and close friends. The interplay between Elisa, gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and brassy coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is highly enjoyable, as is Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland, who is far more interesting and complicated than he needs to be.
The heart and soul of the film, of course, is the romance between Elisa and regular del Toro’s collaborator Doug Jones as the mysterious amphibian brought in to give the Americans a leg up over the Soviets. The Shape of Water excels because it is a romance, but also a horror film, and a political theory; the blending of genres is unexpected, but seamless.
Credit del Toro for creating the year’s most sumptuous looking fairytale. Whole sequences of this film are imprinted on my memory, including the heist-like escape from the laboratory, the Creature standing in the vacant movie theatre and, most memorably, the flooded bathroom. Simply breathtaking.
1. Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017)
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge what a cultural milestone we’ve hit: for two years in a row the best films of the year are queer. While Moonlight is substantially different from Call Me By Your Name, it is significant that films and filmmakers are telling queer narratives that are personally and artistically (if not always commercially) viable.
What can be said about Call Me By Your Name? In truth, it’s more of a straightforward coming of age tale than coming out story. In director Guadagnino’s hands the film takes on a hazy, laissez-faire vibe, steeped in both 80s nostalgia and fleeting summer travelogue. The sun saturated Italian backdrop is warm and inviting, as ripe for fleeting romance as it is for dips in the local watering hole, or visits to the town square by bike.
Our entry into this timeless environment is courtesy of late teen Elios (Timothée Chalamet, fantastic), a bored intellect who is put upon by his professor father to share a room with Oliver (Armie Hammer), the most recent in a long line of graduate students who visit for the summer. Not unlike the seminal queer text Brokeback Mountain (and even God’s Own Country), the relationship between Elios and Oliver is far more nuanced and complicated than a simple romance.
The joy of Call Me By Your Name is the push/pull tension that exists between them: for the better part of the film they could be flirting or fighting, avoiding or gravitating towards each other. The fascinating interplay not only lends the relationship legitimacy, as seen through the foggy nostalgia of the 80s setting and Elios’ lack of life experience, Call Me By Your Name is quietly revelatory in how we struggle with ourselves, our desires and our identity.
Revelatory is a good adjective for Chalamet’s performance. In the novel on which the film is adapted, Elios is an unreliable first person narrator and without his internal monologue, Chalamet uses his body – gangly, somehow both loose and tense – to convey so much of Elios’ unspoken feelings. It’s a break-out performance that is nicely supported by Hammer, offering up so much more than an adult body to objectify, and Michael Stuhlbarg, in a small, but quietly devastating role as Elios’ father.
It’s a cop-out to suggest that Call Me By Your Name is best experienced, but like most of the films on this list, it earns its spot because words alone cannot do it justice. Cinema is visceral: the best films leave a mark on you and Call Me By Your Name is exemplary. There’s nothing simple about the visual aesthetics, technical expertise or nuanced performances. It is a masterful work of art; it is the best film of 2017.
- The Beguiled (Coppola, 2017): My one complaint about The Beguiled is that – from the very start – you know exactly where everything is going. Once you accept that, however, you can sit back and appreciate the wonderful performances, the great costumes and set design and Sophia Coppola’s astute direction.
- Colossal (Vigalondo, 2016): I didn’t love this film when I first saw it at TIFF back in 2016, but the peculiar oddity of watching Anne Hathaway stomp a Kaiju through South Korea has grown on me. I still hate Jason Sudeikis, but that works in this movie’s favour.
- Columbus (Kogonada, 2017): This tiny film wasn’t even on my radar until a week ago. John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson star as two displaced strangers who connect over grief, isolation and architecture in the titular town. It’s a quiet, relationship-driven film that is superbly acted and directed.
- John Wick 2 (Stahelski, 2017): The plot is laughably absurd, but the action sequences – particularly the mirror exhibit climax – are ballet-esque works of art.
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017): The negative fanboy reaction is petty and overwrought. Is TLJ a tad too long? Yes. Does it feature a few too many kid-friendly elements? Sure (real talk: that fathier horde rampage will not age well). These are small critiques, however, considering all of the things that the film does well: prioritizing women and people of colour, deconstructing class and activism, with badass action and one helluva twist. TLJ is a 41 year old franchise at its most innovative and daring, and that is applause-worthy.
Haven’t seen it: A Ghost Story, Lady Bird, The Disaster Artist, I, Tonya, Phantom Thread, The Post
Hungry for more Best Film lists? Check out previous years:
Next week the focus shifts to TV with posts on Best Scenes, Best Episodes, Worst TV of 2017, Best Returning TV and Best New TV. It all starts up on Tuesday, Dec 26!